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When the threes aren't falling for Michigan, they're usually in deep trouble.
Today, however, that was not the case. The Wolverines hit six triples on 20 attempts, tying a season-low set way back in the opener against Northern Michigan, and yet they controlled the proceedings against Penn State while posting an impressive 1.20 points per possession.
The progression made across the board in Caris LeVert's absence was apparent. Michigan went 19/35 on two-pointers and 23/31 from the line, successfully going at the interior of Penn State's defense time and again. Nobody did it better than Zak Irvin, who attacked from the jump, scoring a team-high 20 points—whenever PSU switched a high screen, Irvin drove to the bucket and got results. As a bonus, he drilled a corner three to beat the first-half buzzer.
Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman also had a lot of success off the dribble, working his way to the point for 15 points. Derrick Walton played the role of distributor with Irvin focused on scoring; he put up a 13-10-7 stat line, and when PSU threatened to make it a game late, he had six points and a gorgeous assist to Rahkman in the final four minutes and change to put it away. Mark Donnal added ten points on 2/4 FG and 6/8 FT with four offensive boards.
Foul trouble limited Duncan Robinson to 27 minutes and after an early triple he couldn't find the mark from deep again, finishing 1/5 from beyond the arc. That would normally spell doom for Michigan in another game without Caris LeVert, but Aubrey Dawkins provided a spark off the bench again with seven points, two steals, and an assist.
A month ago, under these circumstances, Michigan probably loses this game. The emergence of an effective ball-screen game keyed by Irvin and Donnal has changed the complexion of the offense, however, and that's allowed Michigan to be productive even in games when one or two of their main scorers aren't hitting their outside shots—today, Robinson and Walton combined to go 2/9 from three, yet the offense still hummed along.
Michigan will still need more of those shots to fall in marquee games against Michigan State and Indiana this week. For today, though, they managed just fine as a team working from the inside out. Remarkably, even though LeVert hasn't played a minute in 2016, the Wolverines are momentarily just a half-game out of first place in the Big Ten.
Video: Rutgers player doesn't realize it's a one-and-one, throws live ball out of bounds for a turnover: pic.twitter.com/RZpFzUNr6n
— Alejandro Zúñiga (@ByAZuniga) January 28, 2016
You need to know four things about this game:
1. Michigan couldn't hit a shot. They dug an early hole after starting 0/5 from the field and finished the first half 6/18 from three. The outside shots started falling in the second half, but the Wolverines still finished only 20/49 from the field—not for lack of open looks, but much like the Minnesota game, they missed a lot of shots they'd normally make.
2. Mark Donnal sparked the run Michigan needed. With Michigan losing by three with 5:30 left in the first half, Donnal stuffed a shot by Jonathan Laurent, assisted Aubrey Dawkins for a three on the other end, took a charge, drew a foul and hit both free throws, then took another charge. After that sequence, Zak Irvin hit a three, and Michigan suddenly had an eight-point lead. Rutgers couldn't pull closer than five points for the duration.
3. With 1:30 left in a ten-point game, Rutgers committed a shot-clock violation. That is not ideal.
4. On the next Michigan possession, Irvin missed the front end of a one-and-one, Rutgers center Greg Lewis rebounded the miss... and passed the ball to the official standing out of bounds. It took a while, but we hit peak Rutgers.
Duncan Robinson (18 points, 4/9 3P) and Aubrey Dawkins (11 points, 3/4 3P, one spectacular missed dunk) were the two players who found any consistency with their shot. Zak Irvin went 2/8 from the field but hauled in 12 boards and dished out eight assists.
This was Minnesota 2.0: Michigan proved fortunate to play a bad team when they had an off night. Because that team was Rutgers, they won by double-digits anyway.
Game ... blouses
Derrick Walton capped the victory in appropriate fashion, drilling a long three as the shot clock expired on Michigan's final possession.
After a poor shooting night nearly cost the Wolverines what should've been an easy win over Minnesota, a 10/21 performance from beyond the arc keyed a hard-fought road triumph over a hot Nebraska squad. In a game of runs, Michigan's significant advantage in outside shooting—especially to open each half—ultimately made the difference, even when they tried to hand that edge right back with ill-advised turnovers.
Walton had arguably his best game of the season running the offense with Caris LeVert still sidelined, posting a 19-12-6 line and making 4/6 three-pointers. His ability to dart into the lane and work off the high screen opened up opportunities for Michigan's two other leading scorers on the day; Mark Donnal (14 points, 4/8 FG) benefited when Walton looked to the paint, while Duncan Robinson (21, 6/12) found more room than usual on the perimeter, especially in transition.
Walton had a hand in eight of Michigan's first 12 points as they ran out to an early eight-point lead, then the Huskers clawed their way back, taking advantage of a defensive lapse by Walton to cut the halftime lead to three with a buzzer-beating triple by Glynn Watson. The second half played out in much the same fashion; M quickly pushed the lead up to 18 points, but turnovers and shoddy zone defense allowed Nebraska to get as close as two points with 3:11 left.
This time, however, Michigan closed the half strong. Walton knocked down a pair of free throws, then Muhammad-Ali Adbur-Rahkman found Robinson on a backcut with a beautiful no-look pass for an authoritative finish to get the lead back to six. Shavon Shields, who was hounded into a 4/11 shooting night by Zak Irvin, responded with a layup, but Michigan made a comeback impossible by subsequently knocking down eight straight free throws.
It certainly wasn't a pretty win. Michigan coughed up the rock 14 times, including several skip passes that didn't have a prayer of reaching their intended target; on the other end, the non-Irvin defenders had trouble keeping Nebraska's drivers in front of them, even while mostly playing zone. Road wins should never be discounted, however, and by the power of the three, Michigan emerged victorious in a difficult place to play.
It's no secret Michigan's defense hasn't been good this season even by the generally mediocre standard set by previous John Beilein teams. The Wolverines rank 134th nationally in defensive efficiency on KenPom; if that stands, it would be the lowest mark in Beilein's tenure by a healthy margin.
When I first watched the Iowa game, I hoped to find one or two issues I could isolate as the main cause of Michigan's defensive problems. On the first viewing, I identified a couple: Michigan's guards gave up the baseline too often, straining their already sub-par weakside defense. This example came to mind:
This was even worse:
There are two big problems on that play. Walton does a poor job defending the high side screen, allowing his man to turn down the pick and get the baseline. This forces Duncan Robinson to rotate over, which he does—he's improved a lot in that regard—but communication is lacking on the weak side and MAAR isn't in position to contest the corner three.
As the screencap at the top of the post indicates, communication was the other deficiency I noticed right away. When Michigan doubled in the post or switched on a screen, they often ended up with two players guarding one guy off the ball while the other was left alone for a layup. Screencaps are sufficient here; both these plays ended in a layup:
Jarrod Uthoff got a crucial late bucket when Iowa ran a pair of baseline screens and Aubrey Dawkins had no idea who to guard:
Those two issues—dribble penetration opening up weakside threes and blowing rotations off the ball—caught my attention on the first viewing.
Unfortunately, a second pass through the game revealed more problems. A couple Iowa three-pointers I initially believed were caused by the weakside defender were instead the product of poor pick-and-roll defense. Michigan eschewed their normal hard hedge against high screens in favor of a softer, more conservative approach for much of the game, and they didn't execute it well.
On this play, Dawkins gets hung up on the screen too long, which causes a domino effect—Mark Donnal has to wait an extra beat before sinking back into the paint, which forces MAAR to stay on the rolling big instead of getting back to his man in the corner:
On this pick-and-roll, Iowa gets a layup when Walton and Donnal play soft, Mike Gesell has an open passing lane, and the help from Robinson is late and wouldn't have prevented an Adam Woodbury bucket regardless:
One more P&R failure for good measure: when Michigan went back to a hard hedge, Walton doubled Uthoff in the paint instead of guarding Woodbury, who was all alone next to the basket.
Finally, Michigan also had trouble identifying shooters in transition, something Beilein discussed in the postgame presser. On this play, Iowa pushes the pace off a defensive rebound, and the Wolverines initially stymie the attempt to get an easy bucket. Again, a lack of communication comes to the forefront, as Dawkins switches men while Iowa swings the ball around the perimeter, which is news to Donnal:
This is pretty basic stuff that Michigan still can't get right. A couple takeaways from the above:
There's no single fix. There's plenty of stuff that's gone wrong here that doesn't even touch on the lack of a true post presence, which I still believe is the biggest problem with Beilein's defenses. There isn't one defender at the heart of these issues—though Dawkins stands out in a bad way, this goes far beyond him. Getting this defense up to simply mediocre will require fixing multiple areas of deficiency.
But if I had to pick one, it's communication. A lot of these easy baskets result from players not talking to each other. Those screencaps are frustrating and telling.
Long story short, it's tough to see Michigan improving to the point where the defense isn't a liability. We're beyond the midway point and there are myriad problem areas. Players like Robinson and Donnal have progressed during the season from starting points that were frankly bad, but they may have maxed out their defensive potential for this season. Hopefully getting Caris LeVert back—whenever that may be—solves some of the communication problems, but those are also widespread enough that I doubt one man clears them up.
The good news is the offense has plenty of firepower. Michigan is going to have to lean on that for the duration unless they have a team-wide defensive improvement we haven't seen out of a Beilein team during the course of a single season.
Pretty much, yeah.
[Hit THE JUMP for the rest of the Maryland game in GIFs.]
I'm trying and failing to process this game in the immediate aftermath.
Despite playing at home, Michigan seemingly had no business hanging with the third-ranked team in the country, not with their best player wearing sweats on the bench. Even the most cock-eyed optimist had to feel the other shoe looming overhead as Maryland whittled into what once stood as a 13-point Michigan lead. That feeling held as Mark Donnal missed the back end of a one-and-one, giving Rasheed Sulaimon an opportunity to send the game to overtime in a most devastating fashion.
Sulaimon weaved back and forth at the top of the arc, but Donnal shadowed him step for step, and while Sulaimon's heave cleared Donnal's fingertips, it didn't hit home. With that, Michigan had a signature win in hand.
Recounting how the two teams reached that point requires a play-by-play worthy of a boxing match. Donnal hit the first significant blow at the end of the first half, blocking consecutive Maryland shots before tipping in a Zak Irvin miss at the buzzer to give the Wolverines an eight-point halftime margin.
Michigan extended that lead behind jumpers from Duncan Robinson, Zak Irvin, and Derrick Walton—in Walton's case, a four-point play after holding his form with center Diamond Stone barrelling through him—but the combination of Stone and Jake Layman countered in a big way. Stone bullied Maryland back into striking distance; Layman tied it up with a smooth midrange stroke; Stone gave the Terps a one-point lead at the 6:33 mark with an and-one.
On the ropes, Michigan fought back, retaking the lead with an and-one of their own from Donnal. Robinson hit a spectacular lefty reverse. Walton drilled a step-back from the elbow. Irvin connected from long range. The lead stood at eight with three minutes remaining.
Sulaimon, who'd been off all night, knocked consecutive three-pointers through, leading to a furious finish as Michigan couldn't put the Terps away at the line. When Sulaimon's final attempt bounced to the corner and the clock hit zero, the Crisler Center crowd unleashed 40 minutes of pent-up nerves.
Irvin finished with 22 points on 17 shot equivalents, Robinson made 5/9 three-pointers on his way to 17, and Walton posted a 12-10-4 line while contributing to a season-worst performance from star Terps guard Melo Trimble, who mustered only two points. Donnal cemented himself as the team's top center with eight points, nine boards, and two blocks; his rebound of a Walton miss with 17 seconds left gained Michigan a critical point while burning a few seconds off the clock.
After little went right against Purdue, everything came together for a Michigan squad missing Caris LeVert, and the schedule eases up considerably after Sunday's trip to Iowa. This may well be the victory that pushes Michigan to the right side of the tourney bubble when all is said and done; it took a true team effort to obtain it.